How should the needs be met for the less fortunate? Should it be the government's responsibility or should the church get involved?

@Michael_Suderman Looking forward to a enlightening Ask RZIM week with your perspectives in government and public policy. To that end, and without getting overly political, there always seems to be a disconnect in society about the division of money – the poverty gap some people call it. The early church was unique in their solution of sharing basically everything so that no one would lack. The problem as I see it is in forcing that concept of society or making it prescriptive. What is your take on biblically providing for the needs of people? Is there biblical precedent for the government getting involved, or is it completely up to the church?

Thanks in advance.

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Hi Jamie,

Thank you so much for your question and for your consideration of such a critical issue both nationally and globally. I will do my best to answer your question as comprehensively as I can!

I’ve actually spent a fair bit of thinking about this question. Living in DC has heightened my awareness of wealth disparity, primarily because Washington DC has the highest income inequality in the country: Households in the top 20 percent of income have roughly 29 times more than the bottom 20 percent and the bottom fifth of DC households had just two percent of total DC income, while the top fifth had a staggering 56 percent.

While are likely many similarities with other areas characterized by income inequality, I do not think the causes are always the same for each context. Additionally, the poverty gap is a complex problem that often exists at the intersection of multiple issues to which there are not always monetary solutions. However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t practical ways that Christians can respond to the needs of the poor. It also doesn’t mean that this precludes generous giving. What is key is to educate ourselves about the facts that lead to the disconnect you’re referring to and think prayerfully about how we might be able to serve and love our neighbors.

The early church example you mentioned draws on Acts 2-5, specifically Acts 2:44-45 and Acts 4:32-35. There are few things to consider about these texts before we make a direct application.

Firstly, while the text can appear to be saying that these early believers sold all of their possessions, this cannot be the case. The primary reason for believing this is they continued to live and meet in their own homes and weren’t all destitute as the result of generous giving. In his study, Neither Poverty nor Riches, Craig Blomberg clarifies through Greek language study that this instance in Acts wasn’t a once-for-all prescription, but rather a description of periodic acts of charity as the needs of the community arose. This is consistent with Acts 4:34b, where it says: “From time to time, those who owned land or houses sold them…”

Secondly, it is important to note that the sharing mentioned in these verses was voluntary and not compelled by any state authority. When Jesus was questioned by Pontius Pilate he was clear that his kingdom is not of this world, and that the hallmark of worldly kingdoms is power by force. It seems to me that the Kingdom of God is to be established as an outflow of hearts transformed by the love of Jesus and not by legal obligation. There is also no mention of the owning of private property being oppressive in any way. What is abundantly clear, however, is that the early Christians were joyfully sacrificing and cheerfully giving for the needs of those in their community in total freedom.

Another verse to consider is Luke 12:33, where Jesus tells his disciples to sell their possessions and give to the poor. But here specific language is also important. The text does not say that they should sell absolutely everything and own nothing. Additionally, the context of that verse is all about God’s provision for their needs in all situations and the fact that they did not need to be anxious about anything, but rather trust God in all things. This verse is much more about the posture of their hearts than the number of their possessions: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” Luke 12:34.

There are undeniable instances of radical generosity in the New Testament, and I think we would do well to consider why it was that these faithful believers were able to give in the way that they did, even when they may have had very little to begin with. In my opinion this testifies to hearts liberated from worry and the need to cling to worldly possessions and transformed for love and compassion toward those in need. After all, Paul reminds us in Acts 20 that Jesus said it is more blessed to give than receive!

For more in-depth reading you could look into Christians in an Age of Wealth by Craig Blomberg. I have also found When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor…and Yourself by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert a very helpful book for considering various kinds of practical engagement.

I hope this is helpful to get you started thinking on this! I welcome your questions, or any additions. Thanks again for your question, Jamie.

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Thank you for your thorough detail of this topic. If I might speak directly to the point I was trying to make and give a clarification, is there a biblical precedent whereby a government could take the Bible and say, “see, right there it says we need to raise taxes to take care of the poor”, or similarly, “the church is supposed to be doing this, but as it clearly isn’t, the government has to now”? I understand the young church in Acts 2-5 was a unique situation and the way they handled this shouldn’t be considered prescriptive for all Christians, but I’m wondering if the Bible might have been misrepresented at some point and used to promote a mandated welfare system. To your mind, is there such a precedent?

Hi Jamie,

Thanks for that clarification. I really can’t speak to whether the Bible was used in certain discussions during the promotion and formation of the welfare system, but there are definitely verses that support its intended purpose (namely, caring for the poor and needy who truly cannot take care of themselves). That said, the creation of a government institution or system for that purpose by utilizing tax dollars is not a case where you’d find a verse for direct application.

Jesus radically raises the bar for generosity, not just in our finances, but in every area of our lives, and not just to the neighbors we like, but also our enemies. He gave his life for us, even when we were enemies of God. That offer of grace and forgiveness is scandalous, but it’s also revolutionary. This is where the kingdoms of this world and the Kingdom of God begin to look very different, because they operate from completely different paradigms. I think that’s where the challenge lies with this issue. There is biblical precedent for all kinds of Kingdom ideas and actions that when practically implemented into the government systems of a fallen world simply can’t function in a Kingdom way without Jesus’ redemptive work. As the Church we have the responsibility and privilege to display the Kingdom of God through the way we live and, to the best of our abilities, be agents of change in this fallen world.

I hope that answers more directly!

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